Northern Virginia health officials are preparing for another bad tick infestation season, especially for the blacklegged tick which can transmit Lyme disease, a debilitating affliction if not treated early enough.
Ticks normally become active in spring, but this year's incredibly mild and dry winter has brought them out earlier than normal. The biggest threat from ticks, specifically the Ixodes scapularis, also known as the deer tick, is Lyme disease. The disease can be transmitted when a tick carrying the disease passes it on to a human after attaching itself to feed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded more than 250,000 cases of Lyme Disease in the nation since 2000. In Prince William County, health officials recorded 34 reported cases in 2011; 46 cases in 2010 and 54 cases in 2009, said April Achter, the county health district’s regional epidemiologist.
“Because of the mild winter, we are preparing for high numbers this year,” Achter said. “But because we depend on health care professionals for our [case] reports, many cases of Lyme disease go unreported and undiagnosed.”
When it comes to preventing tick bites, the trick is to keep contact with the blood suckers to a minimum, Achter said. When going outside, it's important to wear a hat, long sleeves and pants, and to use insect repellant containing 20 percent or more DEET on the exposed skin, Achter said.
“When you come back inside, always do a tick check,” Achter said. When doing a visual examination for ticks, no area should be overlooked.
It's important to remove any ticks that might have gotten on you, she said, because experts say a tick must be attached for at least 36 hours for the Lyme disease bacterium to be transmitted. Showering immediately upon returning indoors can also wash away ticks that haven't yet attached to the skin.
Fairfax County officials also expect another bad year. There were 146 cases of Lyme disease reported in the county in 2011; 256 in 2010 and 260 in 2009, said Glen Barbour, public safety information officer for the Fairfax County Health Department.
At the height of the last big infestation, Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity, Springfield District, held a town hall meeting to spread the word about disease prevention.
“We had some really sick people come down to the meeting,” Herrity said. “We know that if you do exhibit signs of the disease, it's important to consult your family doctor.”
Expectations are that this year will be at least as bad, Herrity said.
“We will have bad tick season this year,” Herrity said. “I can tell from my time in the woods they are proliferating.”
In addition to the usual information campaign aimed at doctors and residents, the county is trying an innovative program to kill the ticks in the field before they can bite a two-legged passerby. The treated with a pesticide used to kill ticks. The stations have a paint roller that applies a coat of pink dye to the deer as they feed. The dye allows researchers to track the deer, Herrity said. It is part of the the .
If you do get bitten, symptoms can vary from headache and body aches, fevers and chills, and fatigue. Often there is a bulls-eye rash, called Erythema migrans, which will usually occur within a few days after a person is bitten by an infected tick, experts said. However, the rash doesn’t show up in all the cases.
"The bull's-eye rash is a tell-tale sign, but unfortunately it is found in only 70-80 percent of cases," Herrity said.
Antibiotics are prescribed to treat Lyme disease and according to the CDC, patients who take the appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of the disease usually make a rapid and complete recovery.